The Union Army of the Potomac had been camped outside Petersburg, south of the Confederate capital of Richmond, since mid-June. In May, Grant, the new Union general-in-chief, had personally overseen a series of bloody battles that had cost his army dearly but had moved it steadily south. The combined slaughter of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna River, and, especially, Cold Harbor (collectively known as the Overland Campaign) might be redeemed if his army managed to cut the Confederate supply and communication lines through Petersburg. And as Petersburg went, so did Richmond.
That was the glass-half-full perspective anyway. As it was, the political pressure on United States president Abraham Lincoln was enormous. His reelection chances were not bright, William T. Sherman’s armies were stalled near Atlanta, Georgia, and the Confederate Army of the Valley under Jubal A. Early had threatened Washington, D.C., leading a member of the 58th Virginia Infantry to leave behind a note: “Now Uncle Abe, you had better be quiet the balance of your Administration, as we came near your town this time to show you what we could do. But if you go on in your mad career, we will come again soon … “
There was a sense all around that the war was coming to a head. On June 21, the Richmond Examiner—already weary of the siege—presciently encouraged Grant to “plunge with his whole force into the crater of the volcano and make an end of it—Let not the campaign linger. All parties are tired of this monotonous slaughter of Yankees.”
Indeed, Grant was open to suggestions, and a truly strange one worked its way up the chain of command. Lieutenant Colonel Henry C. Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, in Burnside’s corps, commanded a regiment of anthracite miners from Schuylkill County. One of his men looked out at the Confederate position from his trench and declared, “We could blow that damned fort out of existence if we could run a mine shaft under it.” The army’s professional engineers thought this to be “claptrap and nonsense,” largely because the tunnel would need to be longer than four hundred feet, a distance that would preclude proper ventilation. As such, they refused to lend any assistance or expertise to the project. Pleasants got the go-ahead anyway, and on June 25 his men started digging, using improvised tools.
Meanwhile, the Confederates who manned “that damned fort” were a brigade of South Carolina infantrymen under Stephen Elliott, along with some Virginia artillerymen under Richard Pegram. They could hear the sound of picks and shovels twenty feet under their shoes and carved out “listening shafts” in an effort to locate the source. They never did, however, and when the noise stopped on July 23, they quit looking, a mistake for which they would pay heavily. By then, the T-shaped tunnel was a 586-foot-long marvel. It was about 5 feet high, 54 inches wide at the bottom, and 2 feet wide at the top. The miners had cut and installed their own lumber to keep it stable and instituted drainage and ventilation systems that worked regardless of what the West Point–trained engineers had claimed. Sometime about Thursday, July 28, the Pennsylvanians began packing it with explosives—320 twenty-five-pound kegs, or four tons of powder. Pleasants had asked for six tons, but even with four, the explosion would be the largest man-made blast in the Western Hemisphere to that point.
Once they saw the tunnel idea was actually going to work, Burnside and Meade set about creating a battle plan. The two didn’t like each other, in part because Burnside had once commanded the Army of the Potomac but was now subordinate to Meade. (Burnside had seniority, however, and Grant issued them separate orders, lest Burnside be offended by receiving direct commands from Meade.) Now Meade, having consulted with Grant, overruled Burnside’s plan to send in first his freshest men—the Fourth Division, consisting of 4,300 United States Colored Troops under the command of the white general Edward Ferrero. (Ferrero was a ballroom dance instructor who, like Meade, had been born in Spain.) Meade said the black troops were untested, which they were, but there was another, more political, reason. Grant later told Congress that if there were a massacre, and the black troops went in first, “it would then be said … that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them.”
Burnside huffed but in the end complied. He gathered together his three remaining division commanders—James H. Ledlie of the First Division, Robert B. Potter of the Second, and Orlando B. Willcox of the Third—and called for a volunteer to lead the charge. When no one spoke up, he had them draw straws. The short straw went to Ledlie, a New York railroad engineer whom some had accused of being drunk during one of the North Anna engagements in May; he certainly was the least competent of the four. Still, all else was according to plan: Grant had sent Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps and two divisions under Philip H. Sheridan on a mission that pulled Confederate troops away from the front. Most of Robert E. Lee‘s Army of Northern Virginia was now north of the James River, leaving Pierre G. T. Beauregard with just 18,000 men to defend Petersburg.
Henry Pleasants lit the fuse at 3:15 on the morning of July 30. The blast was scheduled for 3:30, but that time came and went and by four o’clock Meade was getting anxious. He telegraphed Burnside: “The commanding general directs that if your mine has failed that you make an assault at once, opening your [artillery] batteries.” This idea did not much impress Burnside, so someone called for a volunteer to take a lantern into the mine shaft and check on the fuse. This time there were two volunteers: Sergeant Henry Reese, who went in first, and Lieutenant Jacob Doughty. Together they discovered that the fuse had gone out because of a break in the line, and after fixing it, they raced for the tunnel entrance in time to avoid being crushed by the impact of the explosion.
At precisely 4:44 there was, according to a soldier from the 20th Michigan,
a heaving and lifting of the fort and the hill on which it stood; then a monstrous tongue of flame shot fully two hundred feet in the air, followed by a vast column of white smoke … then a great spout or fountain of red earth rose to a great height, mingled with men and guns, timbers and planks, and every other kind of debris, all ascending, spreading, whirling, scattering.
At the same time, 110 Union guns and 54 mortars all opened fire. (The delay had actually been to the artillerymen’s benefit; by now it was light out and they could see what they were shooting at.) This is the moment when Ledlie’s men were supposed to advance, but like everyone else, they were briefly paralyzed by the force of the blast. At least 278 Confederates—South Carolinians and Virginians mostly—were killed instantly, and a giant crater—what has come to be known as the Crater—was opened up in the ground where moments earlier they had been sleeping. It was more than 170 feet long, 60 feet across, and 30 feet deep. When Ledlie’s troops reached it, rather than march around it they marched into it. There, they discovered that the earth that had fallen back into the Crater had become a mash that trapped the struggling men.
The historian William Marvel has offered two explanations for this crucial mistake. First, he has noted that that the Union men stopped to help dig Confederate survivors from the wreckage, a humane act that nevertheless “proved their undoing, for had they instead swept up and down the trenches and pushed ahead to the heights beyond”—per the battle plan—”they might have captured Petersburg that day.” Marvel has also noted that soldiers were accustomed to seeking shelter, and the Crater was like the biggest and safest foxhole anyone had ever seen—except that it was not. Its steep thirty-foot walls and slippery red clay made it nearly impossible for the men to escape once they had entered, and when Burnside’s remaining divisions followed Ledlie’s men into the fray, pretty much everyone just piled in, making for a perfect mess. Once the Confederates shook off their initial shock, they wheeled their cannons up to the edge of the hole, pointed them down, and let loose.
Such a situation called for leadership. “Ledlie might have gotten his division back in motion by exhortation or example,” the historian Shelby Foote has sniped, “but he was not available just now.” Instead, he was well behind the lines, snug in a sandbagged bunker, sharing a bottle of rum with Ferrero. His failure has made him the target of historians ever since, who have justifiably painted him a symbol of an already-dysfunctional Union command structure. For instance, while disaster threatened, Meade and Burnside were trading intemperate telegrams, with Meade implying that Burnside was not telling him the truth and Burnside accusing Meade of insulting his honor. At one point, Grant himself visited the front, took a look around, and ordered Burnside to pull everyone back. “It is slaughter to leave them here,” he said. But for some reason Burnside ignored the order.
With all of this action was taking place, Ledlie and Ferrero’s remaining in the rear drinking rum rather than going in with their troops underlines their gross lack of leadership. Marvel, to his credit, has been more dispassionate than most scholars: “The principal reason for the failure of Ledlie’s division to capture Cemetery Hill”—the heights that served as the goal of the morning’s action—”may be that Ledlie never told his brigade commanders they were expected to do so.” This hardly lets Ledlie off the hook, but when congressmen later investigated the fiasco, they focused on Meade’s refusal to send the trained and rested black soldiers in first. In other words, perhaps Ledlie’s men did not have the time to prepare for their new role, thrust upon them just hours before the battle. And perhaps Ledlie did not have the time properly to instruct them, to which some historians have replied, Perhaps. But when he should have been up front barking orders and inspiring his increasingly desperate men, Ledlie was nowhere to be seen. Other historians (and Marvel in particular) point out that more-competent generals than Ledlie were nearer the action; in fact, it is possible that the inebriated general, if he had been up at the front, would have hurt the Union cause more than he helped it.
In the Crater
The scene inside the Crater was hellish. The day was a scorcher, and a mist of humidity and smoke hung over the hole. “The heat drove some men literally mad,” Marvel has noted. One New York soldier tripped over the naked bodies of the South Carolinians originally blown up by the explosion on his way to what appeared to be “a large body of Union soldiers lying as though in line of battle waiting for the command to move forward.” To his horror, they were all dead. Men of the United States Colored Troops, from Ferrero’s Fourth Division, were in there, too. This was their first combat, and some of them cried, “Remember Fort Pillow!”—referring to an April battle in Tennessee in which black troops had been murdered by their Confederate captors. Their cheer inspired more than they intended it to, however.
Robert E. Lee had ordered up two infantry brigades under William Mahone to fill the gap in the lines. “Small and lean as a starvation year,” in the words of Douglas Southall Freeman, “Little Billy” Mahone was a Virginia Military Institute graduate and a veteran of all the major Army of Northern Virginia campaigns since the Seven Days’ Battles (1862). His Virginians, who were busy firing down into the Crater and in some instances even hurling bayonet-fixed muskets in the manner of spears, saw the black troops as an ugly provocation. Said one Virginia officer: “Boys, you have hot work ahead; they are negroes and show no quarter.”
Even as the battle turned in the Confederates’ favor and Meade and Burnside squabbled over when and how to retreat, the fighting—which had spread across a square mile, centered on the Crater—took on a new and savage intensity. Black troops who tried to surrender were not always spared, and those who were captured were sometimes murdered. “Many a dusky warrior had his brains knocked out with the butt of a musket, or was run thru with a bayonet while vainly imploring for mercy,” recalled one of the black regiments’ white officers. The Confederate artillery general Edward Porter Alexander confirmed this: “Some of the Negro prisoners who were originally allowed to surrender … were afterward shot by others, & there was, without doubt, a great deal of unnecessary killing of them.”
William Pegram, a Confederate colonel whose cousin’s battery was blown up by the initial explosion, wrote in a letter to his sister that “it seems cruel to murder [the black soldiers] in cold blood, but I think the men who did it had very good cause for doing so.” From Pegram’s point of view, part of that cause included his own troops’ morale. “I have always said that I wished the enemy would bring some negroes against this army,” he wrote. “I am convinced, since Saturday’s fight, that it has a splendid effect on our men.”
Another Confederate soldier, William Cowan McClellan of the 9th Alabama, described to his brother the scene once the fighting had stopped:
They were the worst looking set you ever saw, yankees layed the defeat to the Negroes, Negroes were disposed to lay it on the yankees. We captured 250 Negroes, all of whom were wounded in some way: Bayoneted, knocked on the head by the butts of muskets. all would have been killed had it not ben for Gen. Mahone, who would beg our men to spare them. one fellow in our Brigade killed several. The Gen. told him for gods sake stop. Well, Gen. let me kill one more, he deliberately took out his pocket knife and cut ones throat. Great many of the yankees officers, even Negroes, were killed on the spot.
A similar incident, on a much smaller scale, would occur just a few months later, at Saltville, Virginia.
After eight and a half hours of fighting, Burnside’s Ninth Corps, which engaged about 16,500 men, suffered 3,800 killed, wounded, and captured. The battle cost Lee’s 9,500 men only about 1,500 casualties. Not surprisingly, the United States Colored Troops bore the brunt of these numbers. Their casualty count was 1,327, which included 450 men captured, a number of whom were killed after surrendering. “It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in war,” Grant telegraphed the Army chief of staff Henry W. Halleck. “Such opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have.”
There was plenty of blame to go around. The Union general Orlando B. Willcox accused the black troops of having “acted badly,” and it is true that many of them had run—or, in the cramped confusion of the Crater, had tried to run—when confronted with Mahone’s point-blank counterattack. Burnside, however, was more magnanimous, describing the Fourth Division as having marched “gallantly under the first fire and until their ranks were broken.”
Grant and Meade focused their fury on Burnside and Ledlie, who were given leave with no orders to return. Ledlie (not to mention Ferrero) clearly shirked his duty, while Burnside’s failing was more subtle. There is no evidence he knew of Ledlie’s incompetence, but it seems reasonable to say he should have known. His leadership style was hands-off to a fault, and at the Crater, it contributed to his undoing.
When members of the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War investigated, however, they pointed a finger at Meade. (With his sister-in-law married to former Virginia governor Henry A. Wise, Meade was no friend of the Radical Republicans who dominated the committee.) He should never have reversed Burnside’s plan to send Ferrero’s men in first, they said. But he did, of course, and the Petersburg siege lasted another eight months, the longest siege on U.S. soil to date.